This past weekend I had the absolute privilege of running sound for The Refuge‘s first show, Next to Normal. When the opportunity was sent to me, I hesitated, it was going to be a real challenge, no lengthy week of tech/dress rehearsals to get sound right, unknown sound equipment in an unknown space, and no orchestra pit meaning the band is on stage which makes controlling the audio levels much more difficult. On top of this, the show was in San Francisco, meaning I’d have a long commute to and from the show each day.
I’m so glad I decided to take the opportunity. The Refuge is an interesting concept of a theater company. Daniel Shaindlin has tried to come up with a way that the best college actors can get an experience to act in a professionally produced show. The group of students that he brought together for this show is absolutely incredible. If these young men and women don’t end up on Broadway or in Hollywood, the arts will have lost out on some real talent.
If you didn’t read that these were college students and just came to the show, you would believe these were old pros who have been belting it out on the Broadway stage for years. Heck, they are better than many of the actors I’ve actually seen on Broadway and other professional productions.
On top of this, to make the show as amazing as possible, our extremely talented Music Director Kevin Surace told Daniel that this show needed professional musicians. This show is an extremely challenging one to play and the timeline to produce it was going to be extremely short. Kevin knew that this group of actors deserved to be backed by an Orchestra that was ready and able to play this music. The musicians they hired for this show have toured, they’ve played concert halls and stages around the world and it shows.
As I said above, when Kevin first emailed me to ask if I was interested in running sound for this show I hesitated. The challenges were going to be immense, and it would require a ton of energy that I wasn’t sure I had. When he described the talent of these practically professional actors and these already professional musicians, my self doubt told me I wasn’t up to the level this show deserved. Finally there was the play itself.
I wasn’t familiar with Next to Normal before this, but looking it up showed that the subject matter was, heavy. The play covers a family who is in turmoil as the wife/mother battles with Major Depressive Disorder, Bipolar Disorder, and delusions. The main character deals with the grief of losing a child, the crippling grip of mental disorders, attempted suicide, electroconvulsive therapy, memory loss and more. Simultaneously we see the rest of the family as they try to care for and protect their suffering loved one, and we see the heavy toll it places on all of them and the way it pushes her daughter to abuse drugs.
As some of my friends and family know, I suffer from Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) myself. I currently take Bupropion to treat this. While it helps a lot, I go through bouts of severe depression when it doesn’t work well enough for me. When I read the synopsis of this play I was worried that if I worked this play, the heavy subject matter might feed my own depression, making it worse. Part of the reason I love musical theater so much is because it offers me an escape from my depression for a few hours, and this play seemed like it would do the opposite.
All this said, when Kevin contacted me a second time, I decided to see if I could fit it into my schedule. It was going to be difficult, but I decided that it was an opportunity I didn’t want to pass up. My life is forever enriched from this experience. Last night, even though it was the fifth time in 4 days that I had seen this play, the performance moved me to tears it was so incredible. Everything from the voices, to the music, to the emotion these amazing actors put behind every word.
I clearly wasn’t the only person to think so, last night, a packed house at the historic Victoria Theatre in San Francisco gave this cast a well-deserved standing ovation that lasted several minutes.
Thank you, Kevin Surace, for thinking of me when you needed a sound operator for this show. Thank you, Daniel Shaindlin, for allowing me to be a part of this. I will watch The Refuge and eagerly await your next show. For those of you in the bay area, next time The Refuge puts on a production, be sure to put it on your must-see list, I know I will.